Interview | Artistic Director of Zen Zen Zo and Teaching Artist Nicole Reilly
Next up on my local artistic interview segment is the wonderfully kind Nicole Reilly, who I met at Zen Zen Zo's Stomping Ground years ago and am now proud to call her one of my theatre mums. Proudly a queer, Wiradjuri woman, Nicole is the Artistic Director of Zen Zen Zo Physical. She is an established creative producer, director and teaching-artist who graduated from the innovative practice-based Performing Arts Master's Program at USC in 2017 (where she studied advanced producing, event management, marketing, grant writing, and arts administration). Since 2012 she has produced over 30 works, mostly in regional Queensland. Since moving to Brisbane to do the master's degree, she has produced sold-out seasons for both Zen Zen Zo's THE TEMPEST & THE UNSPEAKABLE DREAMS OF SALVADOR DALI, and Dan Evan's EVERYTHING WE REMEMBERED, LET'S AGREE TO FORGET, as well as producing and touring 6 shows for Mashed Theatre around Queensland in 2017-2018. She was also the Education & Workshop Producer for Horizon Festival from 2019 to 2020, connecting artists to schools across the Sunshine Coast. As a former educator, Nicole is particularly passionate about (and adept at) engaging young people in cultural experiences, and looks forward to generating new audiences for Zen Zen Zo locally, nationally and internationally. Here's what she had to say...
VIRAG: How did you become involved with theatre and teaching?
NICOLE: I've always loved performing and storytelling. I have a really vivid memory of being 4 years old and ticketing the entry to my bedroom/The Circus. My poor parents were so patient, watching me throw my stuffed animals across the room, making up songs, performing all the characters. I did as many arts subjects as I could get my hands on at school, finding all the different ways I could tell stories. Digitally, visually, with the body... I ended up realizing what I loved most was sharing stories, and it dawned on me that maybe it could be a career - so I went off to be an English/Drama/Film teacher. I love being in classrooms, sharing art with young people. Seeing their eyes light up when they see something incredible for the first time - so joyous! It's a real highlight of my work at Zen Zen Zo, I go on every residency and workshop I can so I can still be in classrooms.
As for theatre, it's actually my 10 year anniversary of stalking Zen Zen Zo this week, I auditioned for them that long ago. Persistence pays off! I first heard about this wild company from my high school drama teacher, and I became obsessed with them, their aesthetic. They weren't like anything I'd ever seen. Over the years, I trained with them whenever I could, whilst still doing my own projects, and eventually, Lynne and Simon (the founders) invited me to join the company, become the Executive Producer, and now Artistic Director.
VIRAG: How has the coronavirus impacted your own creative practice and the theatre companies you work with?
NICOLE: Initially, I was in shock. When Scomo announced the social distancing rules, I was at Adelaide Festival, feeling really inspired after seeing the most incredible shows, looking at acts for festival programming I was involved in. That was a redundant exercise as I was let go from that gig not long after. Every time I refreshed my phone I had booking cancellations. I reached out to the Zen Zen Zo company members, to make sure they were ok, and when we were ready, to plan what we'd do next as a company. We catch up weekly over Zoom, mostly to check in, which has kept us connected, and grounded. I'd planned for a big first year as Artistic Director, but all that's been put on hold. My first priority is the safety and wellbeing of the company, and being a very physical company, it's been a huge challenge for us all. We're going to launch Digital Dojo this term, so we can continue to be home for artists, making space for creative practice. That's our priority for now. Personally, I've been doing things to keep me grounded, and finding creativity in whatever I can. Gardening has been really therapeutic. Getting my toes in the dirt and crafting, curating the ecosystems around me. I have so many bees in my yard now - if that isn't a huge millennial life achievement, I don't know what is.
VIRAG: Do you think continuing to stream services and classes online is the way forward, in our quarantined state. Do you think there is another way?
NICOLE: I think streaming is the medium we have to embrace at the moment. Artists have always been quick to respond, we're excellent at being flexible and adapting. But I still think we need face to face connection, calls and texts just aren't cutting it. Once we're allowed to gather again, I think there'll be really interesting conversations to be had about spatial relationships, and how our ideas of personal space have changed. I'm really interested in not just how artists are innovating on online platforms right now, but how this will increase accessibility to art long-term.
I used to teach in regional QLD and we had to fight for every arts opportunity. Now there's world-class artists and works right there, online, for everyone to access. That's INCREDIBLE. I live-streamed Bangarra on Wednesday night, sitting on my couch in my pyjamas. If this kind of online sharing continues, it can never be a bad thing there's more accessibility to art in the world.
VIRAG: As a teaching artist, what would you encourage young artists/actors/creatives to do at home to keep them creative?
NICOLE: Focus on process, not product. Especially now. You don't have to churn out art to be an artist. Read widely, ready deeply. About nothing and everything. Fill your social media with artists. Get your feet dirty, cook, paint or write, do anything creative that gives you those sweet, sweet endorphins. And if you need to take time on your couch, watching something on TV, well, you're consuming art, and that's ok too.